[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
John Wick: Chapter 4 opens with Laurence Fishburne’s delightfully theatrical Bowery King paraphrasing the inscription above the Gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope, those who enter.” It’s an appropriate allusion, considering the film’s narrative revolves around the concept of damnation.
Keanu Reeves’ eponymous repentant assassin was, fans will recall, cast into the abyss at the conclusion of the previous movie—shot off the roof of New York’s Continental Hotel by his former ally Winston in exchange for amnesty. Now, Baba Yaga no longer seeks redemption—just cold, ruthless revenge. To this end, he declares open war on the enigmatic High Table and its archaic, dogmatic “rules.” The “Old Ways,” after all, rarely benefit small fries like John or Donnie Yen’s Caine—slaves in all but name, bound in servitude by debts that can never be repaid; rather, they exist only to shield the corrupt elite from reprisal and retribution.
Yet even if Wick accomplishes his lofty goal of slaying the gods that govern the world of organized crime and murder for hire that he inhabits, what will he have gained? As many characters point out, the High Table is much larger than any of the figureheads that populate its ornate seats; evil men can be butchered by the score, but systems of oppression are (unfortunately) impervious to bullets. Ultimately, our protagonist will have merely further tarnished his own soul, sinking deeper into the cycle of bloodshed and carnage that he was so desperate to escape.
But hasn’t the infamous Boogeyman earned this grim fate? Haven’t his past misdeeds condemned him to this perpetual torment? Should remorse alone cleanse his karma and wash away the stain of his sins? It’s no coincidence that the climax of his globetrotting adventure features both a boat ride across a subterranean river and an arduous climb up the three hundred steps leading to Paris’ Sacré-Coeur.
If this symbolic imagery seems excessively heavy-handed, that’s entirely by design. Subtlety is a coward's weapon; John Wick: Chapter 4 is boldly, gloriously, unapologetically maximalist in every facet of its being, from its flawlessly choreographed action sequences to its surprisingly compelling themes. Don’t be dissuaded by its daunting 169-minute running time; not a scene is wasted, and I wouldn’t trim a single frame.